BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty [in Shelf Awareness]

The dozen stories of Morgan Talty’s vivid debut collection, Night of the Living Rez, certainly stand alone – eight of them were previously published in various prestigious journals including the Georgia Review and Narrative magazine, which also awarded him a 2021 Narrative Prize. To discover all 12 together, however, becomes a richly enhanced experience, their intertwining links creating a more sustained, rewarding read. Talty sets his fiction in the “rez,” the Penobscot Indian Nation community of which he, too, is a citizen; here, it’s called the “Panawahpskek Nation,” whose spelling difference (and more) is elucidated in a note at the end of the book.

Talty writes each story in first-person, jumping back and forth between David the boy and David the man. His second story, “In a Jar,” introduces young David and his mother, who have “left our life down south with my father and sister” and moved into a Panawahpskek home. He finds “a glass jar filled with hair and corn and teeth,” a discovery that invites the medicine man Frick, who deems the jar “bad medicine,” seemingly setting in motion a future cursed with suffering and disappointment. In “Food for the Common Cold,” Mom and Frick argue vehemently about having a child of their own. Grammy forces cigarettes onto David, mistaking him for her dead younger brother, in “The Blessing Tobacco.” Teenage troubles multiply in “Smokes Last,” but David twice saves his sister in the titular “Night of the Living Rez.”

As an adult, David battles drug addiction, unemployment, malaise, spending most of this directionless time with Fellis, a fellow addict who admits to “bumming from [his] mom for thirty-one years.” Beth takes David in when his mother has had enough of his transgressions. David cuts Fellis’s frozen hair from the ice in “Burn,” hunts porcupines in “Get Me Some Medicine,” plans to sell museum treasures in “Half-Life.” Decades after the fact, he recalls how he temporarily lost his vision at age 10 after a haunting family tragedy in what might be the collection’s finest, “The Name Means Thunder.”

Through David’s maturing eyes, Talty illuminates his narratives with empathy, vulnerability, and, occasionally, unexpected humor. He writes with assuredness, with an eyes-wide-open frankness that make his characters feel immediately, if not familiar, then certainly knowable. Joining the ranks of Tommy Orange, Brandon Hobson, and Terese Marie Mailhot, Talty’s strikingly successful debut is poised to expand the growing circle of lauded Indigenous writers.

Shelf Talker: Morgan Talty’s superb debut collection showcases 12 interlinked stories featuring a single Native narrator from his troubled childhood to the challenges of his adulthood.

Review: Shelf Awareness Pro, May 20, 2022

Readers: Adult

Published: 2022


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